Confessions of a mostly stay at home mom

I’m primarily a stay at home mom. And sometimes people pay me to work as a doula and as a freelance video producer and editor. When I have a project or a client or both, I trade time I normally spend cleaning and cooking for the opportunity to dive into a creative project and relationship. I make money. And I feel like I’m doing something.

It’s a strange distinction, since when I’m not working for money, I’m still doing something. A lot of things, in fact. Managing our house, its cleanliness, food stores, our finances, and attending to the myriad of needs and whims of our 3 and a half year old, J. Also, for the last 7-ish months, I’ve been gestating another human.

When I write it all down like that, it sounds pretty impressive.

My lived experience: not so much.

Last week, I caught myself saying, “Work? Well, I delivered my last video project, and my last doula client give birth last week, so I’m done working until I pick things up after this baby is born.”

Totally.

By “done working” I mean this:

I wake up every other morning when J does, at or before 7am (thank you A, for taking every other morning so I can sleep till after 8:30), we cuddle in bed, then make breakfast. I read J books, get him dressed (we’re down to one of 2 outfits these days that he wants to wear—both are pajamas), tote him along for whatever projects I need to get done that day (gardening—easy to accommodate his boisterous, physical self; grocery shopping—less so), go to a park or meet up with a friend of his at some point, dole out snacks, make and eat lunch. We pay for childcare 3 mornings a week, so on those mornings I get time to wash dishes, clean and cook uninterrupted. Or pay bills, or sleep or blog or get my hair cut or go to therapy. In the afternoons, I shepherd J through an hour of “quiet time” which often results in numerous trips upstairs to help him poop, make sure he’s not pilfering the Tums he discovered on my bedside table or coloring his walls with crayon. Sometimes I manage to sneak in a nap. Then it’s more errands, maybe playing trains or orange jellyfish or poisonous space triceratops. Then onwards to interrupted dishwashing and dinner preparation. A usually gets home at 6:15, we eat, then the bedtime ritual begins and A usually takes him up to his room to play songs sometime after 7.

“I’m done working.”

How is it that I fall for this: the chronic and devastating under-valuation of managing a home and raising children?!

Yet I do. At first glance, I only consider or talk about paid work as work. When I lay on the couch while J is at childcare or during “quiet time,” I often feel guilty for watching Project Runway.

It’s hard for me to admit this because I know how I would like to feel. I’d like to be highly aware of the kick ass work that I’m doing.  I’d like to feel the weightiness of the contribution I’m making to the world every day. I’m nourishing people’s bodies, I’m helping 2 new people to emerge into the world. I’m tending the soil out of which my family grows.

My lived experience, though, is that many moments of every day, I feel somehow diminished by the work that I do at home.

Since becoming a mother, I feel like my value in the world has decreased.

So why the disconnect? Why do these judgments lurk in the dusty, dark corners of my mind, even while I “know” that the work I’m doing is extremely important?

I’m sure the repetition of things said and not said during my childhood has something to do with it. There was the recognition I got, even as a kindergartener for being “gifted and talented,” and I was regularly told that I could do or be anything under the sun—a scientist, a lawyer, a doctor, or president. I believed it. I wanted to be an archaeologist, a geologist, a dancer and an artist. But I can’t remember one time as a child that I imagined, or was encouraged to think about how motherhood or contributing to a family was a pursuit worth aiming towards. That is not to say that anyone ever looked at me and said “Being a mother is worthless work.” But somehow, here I am, washing dishes and loving my son and feeling less relevant somehow.

I’ve thought many times that I always have the choice to go out and get a full-time job. And I don’t want that. What I want is, to some degree, what I have—flexibility to spend time with my children and regular opportunities to make money in ways that I find engaging.

The other thing I want is to consistently feel that the mothering work I do is a valuable contribution. Dare I say just as valuable as the work that my partner does at his office everyday.

Here’s a novel idea–my sister mentioned recently that she knows a couple who organized their budget to pay the stay at home parent for the time she spends with their child. At first, I hated how reductive this sounded. This whole problem isn’t just about money.

But it’s definitely a factor.

What if our monthly budget spreadsheet actually listed the monetary value of the work I’m doing every month?  We have a line item for childcare—but that’s just when we pay other people to do it.

What if we found some way to account for the fact that every hour I spend with J is an hour that A can spend making money at his office job?

What if we started talking about the parenting I’m doing everyday as my work or stopped referring to A’s time he spends doing city planning as his?

I don’t know the answer, but I’m off to do some more work.

20 thoughts on “Confessions of a mostly stay at home mom

  1. I loved this post. With the birth of my second child, I transitioned from a full-time job to working part-time, to allow myself more time with my kids (and the ability to breastfeed my baby for a decent amount of time). I am now contemplating transitioning to full blown SAHM status for a number of reasons, but mostly so that I can provide consistency for both of our kids (right now my toddler goes to daycare 3 days a week, is with her grandma two days a week, and has “family time” on the weekends), and so that I can raise them the way I want them to be raised, rather than feeling like my parenting is being partly dictated by daycare or a substitute parent.
    The part-time work status is a balancing act too, for sure, and also not as “validating” as having a full time career that I can talk about with friends and family. I work to make a little money, and that is pretty much the only reason. If I am not working for money, I am running around getting chores done or tending to the kiddos. When I do sit down to watch a tv program, I am overwhelmed with that same sense of guilt that you feel.
    I have said to my husband on numerous occasions that working full time for money would be the EASIEST option for me at this point – I think the administrative tasks I have taken on in past jobs pale in comparison to the responsibilities of raising kids. I know if I DO become a SAHM, it will be the toughest job I have encountered so far, and though I won’t be rewarded monetarily, there will be many other rewards gleaned from the experience.

    Many thanks again for writing such a poignant post.

    Dvora
    http://mooshkatoo.blogspot.com

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Dvora. I agree with you that in many ways, working full time for money does feel like the “easiest” option. More opportunities for external validation and, in many ways, paid work is easier than the constantly shifting sands of raising kids and maintaining home.

  2. Thanks for this. It is work, dammit. It is! Commercials make it seem like modern motherhood is such a breeze as long as you have a Swiffer. Hmmmm……it’s a titch more complicated than that.

  3. You have captured my feelings over the last year. Thank you! I used to feel so guilty that I wasn’t getting more done during the day–cooking, writing, canning, berry-picking, cleaning, gardening. Now I’ve pretty much just accepted it. I will not be the super mom of my dreams. That’s OK.

  4. Stephanie – be grateful every day that you get to stay home with your kids. You can love them, teach them, share with them, laugh with them and yes, sometimes even tear your hair out a bit with them. It is the greatest gift you will ever give yourself – and them – and they will remember your times together and love you even more for it – maybe not right now but one day. I’m sad that today’s young women were taught or learned that being a stay at home mom is less valuable than being out in the “workforce”. I was one of those moms that didn’t get to stay at home and while I enjoyed most of my jobs, I envied every harried looking mom who dropped off her child at school and left without a one last kiss or hug – anxious to get home to do who knows what. I was the one who lingered making sure that C was happy and ready to let me go. So I say to you – what you do is valuable beyond belief – you just need to learn to value yourself. You are the CEO and CFO of your family – that should make you feel valued! You get a big bonus every night when J kisses you goodnight and tells you that he loves you! Enjoy it every day for he will grow up and be gone before you know it!
    Much love and happiness to your little family!

  5. I struggle with the same things too! I guess the thing that gets me through the day is looking at my 8 and 6 year olds and knowing that my 3 year old will be there before I know it. When they’re all in school, I’ll go back to working nearly full time (I think!), so I constantly remind myself that this time is very short-lived in the scheme of things. You’re right in the heat of where I was years ago, and I remember feeling the same way and I couldn’t get a grasp of the whole big picture. Now I can look at my older kids and know that the time spent with ME raising them has made a huge difference in their lives today, at school, with their friends, and with family. It’s definitely a big sacrifice! I don’t think you’ll really see your “payment” for a while, but years down the road you will definitely see it! Thanks for your honesty and you are doing an awesome job! And my husband used to come home from work and ask, “what did you do today?” and I often answered “kept three kids alive” and that was the end of that!

  6. I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment. As a society, we completely devalue domestic work. I’ve been home now full-time, without any “side work,” for nearly 6 and half years. And as a dad who made the choice to stay home, I find my choice even more devalued. F will be entering kindergarten in the fall of 2014 and everyone asks “When are you going back to work?” The simple answer is, “I’m working now and I plan to continue to do this.” Just because both kids are in school full-time doesn’t mean that the work at home is done. There’s still laundry and cooking and cleaning and finances and gift buying and doctor appointments and and and … In fact, it only becomes tougher when both are in school because someone needs to be available for random days off and breaks and inevitable sick-days. And carpooling and activities to boot!

    Managing a household and raising kids is a full-time job, something I’m proud to do, and it’s not going to end.

    1. Thanks so much for weighing in, Adam. It is revealing how any time when children are not at home is seen by many of us and others as, simply, the time that you should be working for money. And you’re so right. There is so much to do and also, might we just even allow ourselves to REST a bit?! I’m curious to hear more about you you find your choice even more devalued. Specifics please!!

  7. Awesome post. Thanks for this. I also struggle with the same thing and am in fact in a feminist reading group with other mothers talking about this very subject.
    We are reading The Grand Domestic Revolution, a history of the materialist feminist movement that tried to get women paid for the work they do in the home. It also talks about how this group created shared spaces in apartment buildings for communal cooking and childcare to lighten the load of the single family.

  8. As the child of a single parent, I know my mom grieves all the time she had to give up with me in order to provide for us (which was LOTS)–this is one of the reasons I have chosen not to “do it myself,” though I do want kids. While I *totally* appreciate how you feel and very likely would feel the same, I’m happy for you that you do get to be so present in J and ?’s lives! ❤ laur

  9. Howdy.

    Well, all the feminists from the good old days would say your choices in life are what they were fighting for.

    I do understand (as much as possible for a single, childless gay dude) the enormous psychological disturbances you are encountering. You may not feel so fractured if you actually had some real rest time.

    You sound as though you have a lot of real productive balance in your life.

    Of course, all that goes right out the window for the next few years when your family increases by 1/4.

    I can’t imagine how it feels to go from single, newly married then adding in kids. Maybe that’s why Nature encourages such actions when one is younger so you don’t go crazy quite as quickly.

    From my far away and limited impression, you are doing great.

    Glad to hear that A does some separate child rearing….good for him, the kid and you.

    Forget the guilt….Project Runway is a great soap opera….love it.

    Carry on,
    Your fan,
    Gura

  10. When meeting someone new (sorry about it, Adam, it shouldn’t be so, but mostly women!), I ALWAYS ask “do you work outside the home?”. People often find that question strange, but the work done at home is as important as work done outside the home. Too bad that even in 2013 much of the work done at home is ‘silent’ and undervalued. Surely raising children has to be one of the most important things ever. IS it just the pay check that makes all the difference and if so, how do we go about changing that thought process, both within ourselves and ‘society’? I still think we are still suffering a hangover from the 1950s (over HALF a century ago!!) where ‘the perfect wife and mother’ was so stereotyped. And …. every time I hear that awful song ‘Wives should always be lovers’ I want to go smash the radio …. (If you fancy a small ‘burn’ google those lyrics!)
    Vicki (a newbie and very smitten Granma)

  11. I’ve been pondering similar feelings since my first child was born, and I have finally just figured out (for myself, anyway) after reading this, why the comment about feeling that your value in the world has decreased has resonated with me to my core. I’m also a full-time mom and I have struggled to understand why I felt “lesser” somehow compared to when I was childless and working full-time. It starts with the acceptance of the philosophy that typical people in westernized society generally (just go with me for a moment) only appreciate what you can do for them. Not who you are, or how nice you are, or that you care about the environment, or anything else… except what they get from you. Maybe it’s a good feeling because you play music they enjoy, or you make the best cupcake they’ve ever tasted, or you are nice to their kids. They judge you by your positive input into their lives- how they can benefit from you. So if that’s the ideology you’re starting from, becoming a full time mother and pulling your circle of influence in to encompass pretty much just your close family and friends (with your “output” and energy directed close to you, rather than outward into the world) it makes sense that judged in that way, your “value” to the world [anyone who used to benefit from you and now does not] HAS actually decreased. Your overall “value” is the same, just more focused, intense, and in a smaller social radius… like switching from a 65 watt lightbulb that illuminates a walkway in a city park, to a 65 watt lightbulb enclosed in a box with a bunch of eggs, warming them. Which one has more value? Depends on if you ask someone walking at night in the park, or one of the unhatched chicks.

    Maybe that wasn’t as insightful as it feels right now, but it’s making me feel a whole lot better about why my efforts as a mom were going unnoticed and unappreciated by the world at large.

  12. I am about to be made redundant from my paid job at the end of June and I am so excited about being able to do a proper job of being a mum and looking after our home and dog. Also I need a LOT of energy to be able to help with homework and reinforce what my boys manage to ignore at school everyday!

  13. YES. You nailed it! I read an article recently about what SAHM’s need from their spouses. The article basically said, that, yeah, helping with the dishes and laundry are great, but what what SAHM’s need MOST is a little ego boost now and again!

    You know, we’re with our kids all day long, and our children, as much as we love them, are not necessarily the most uplifting people…. Mine (ages 4 years and 18 months) tend to fight me and rebel on even the silliest issues, and frankly, the innocent terrorism that comes from toddlers and preschoolers can get in your head and bring you down till you stop feeling like a woman all together! In this role we have to work EXTRA hard at our own emotional health and self esteem! Thanks for your honesty!

  14. Your attention to the in and outs of our daily lives as stay-at-home moms could not come at a more pertinent time for me. How do you articulate so well what I’m feeling and thinking??!!! THANK YOU for sharing your genuine contemplations. They are profound and very VERY helpful! Although you do provide an insightful reflection about perhaps why we as constantly working mothers may not understand how to value our role or “job” at home (which may very well be the crux of our discomfort), just hearing that I am not alone in this quandary is so encouraging. I’m newly pregnant and starting my 3-year-old in preschool 2 days a week and I think all mom’s should give themselves these types of opportunities to have time to replenish (even if we choose to work uninterrupted- that in itself, as you know, is a huge mental break if nothing else.) And when that special opportunity of watching Project Runway presents itself, I say fully embrace those moments guilt-free! Take it, own it, enjoy it! Giving yourself a break will only continue to model to your children that its OK to rest and recooperate. Self-care is not emphasized enough in our culture. And I also find it especially reassuring that my preschooler is not the only little person who only wants to wear pjs all day everyday. Honestly, I think our little ones have the right idea. Thanks again, Amanda

  15. I recently followed a link to your blog from a feminist parenting blog, and this post caught my eye. I work at home, about 80% taking care of kids and home, and 20% as an independent scholar. I have thought about my parenting as my work for a long time, but I have to keep re-declaring it. I recently wrote a grant/prize application for my research, and realized that I wasn’t sure I could have child care as a line item. For most grants, you can ask for a salary commensurate with the salary you will give up if you accept the grant, in addition to direct research expenses (travel to archives, photocopying, etc.) but child care is excluded as a legitimate expense. I tried solving my dilemma by estimating my contribution to the household in terms of childcare expenses saved, calling it my current salary, and asking for replacement for that. Who knows if it will be acceptable. Ridiculous, no?

    1. This is such a stark example of how parenting is devalued–so ridiculous. No wonder those of us who spend the majority of our time parenting find it a struggle to value the work we’re doing… I’d love to hear whether they accept your salary estimate.

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